Although he’s got plenty of friends he can stay with, Georgetown artist John Walters thinks he’ll bunk at the Quality Inn for the time being.
“Right now I think that’s best so I can go through all those emotions, you know?” he said.
Walters was awakened before sunrise Wednesday by his across-the-hall neighbor banging on his door and calling out his name. He opened the door to a smoky hallway, went into his neighbor’s apartment and saw they couldn’t escape through the back door because her deck was on fire.
Their apartments, and Walter’s art studio, were on the second floor of the last building on the east end of the 700 block of Front Street to be taken by the fire that was already raging through six other buildings.
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He told her to grab one thing from her apartment and they’d head out the front way. He ran into his apartment, opened Jake’s kennel and the 7-month-old Blue Heeler ran out the apartment door.
Walters then headed back into the hall where the smoke was quickly thickening. His neighbor was still in her apartment trying to get things, so Walters gripped her by her collar and dragged her toward the front stairs.
“The smoke was so black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he said.
His neighbor cried out that she couldn’t see anything and Walters encouraged her to move forward. On the way down the stairs, he felt Jake brush against one of his legs.
It wasn’t until they were safe on the street that he realized Jake hadn’t followed them outside.
Walters ran back into the burning building, fell to his hands and knees and crawled as far forward as he could.
But Jake didn’t make it, and Thursday morning, Walters said he was processing emotions as they came over him and trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“I will rebuild,” he said, echoing a spirit that infiltrated the street where residents gathered to stare at the ruins and a prayer service held for the victims at Prince George Winyah Church, just two blocks from the devastation.
“What was lost can be restored, can be rebuilt,” the Very Rev. Paul C. Fuener told about 75 people who gathered to pray for healing in their town.
Walters also lost $20,000 worth of his paintings that he had stacked in the studio awaiting the arrival of the buyer, Emily Boyer of Charleston.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Boyer said of the art buy she and a friend were making mostly for a Charleston restaurant. But there was one painting Boyer planned to buy that her son had seen on a previous visit and raved over. She was going to give it to him for Christmas.
Boyer said she arrived in Georgetown at 3 p.m. Wednesday knowing nothing about the fire. Still, Walters was waiting for her and they spent the afternoon crying as Walters talked about the fire and his lost dog.
She stayed the night, wanting to make sure that Walters was secure and cared for before she left town.
“I’m trying to support my artist,” she said Thursday morning across Front Street from the building where Walters lived.
When he’s ready to move from the Quality Inn, Lauren Cobb, a friend and tourism marketing director for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, said he would not have trouble finding a place. Sure, friends and acquaintances would open their homes, she said.
But there was more.
“We’ve had people volunteer homes,” Cobb said. “We’ve had people volunteer apartments.”
Some of the town’s hotels and motels had said they would make rooms available to those who were made homeless.
And there would be no charge for any of it.
Cobb said some fundraisers have already been announced. Others, such as a golf tournament, are just talking ideas now. She asked that everyone who holds a fundraiser contact the chamber, which can coordinate times so no two overlap and keep a list for the public.
A relief fund has been set up at First Citizens Bank and those who want to donate can do so at any branch by making out their tax exempt checks to Front Street Relief Fund, said Matt Wesolowski, vice president of First Citizens in Georgetown. There was $158 in the account early Thursday afternoon, and Wesolowski said checks to the account may also be mailed directly to the Georgetown bank at 726 Front Street, Georgetown 29440.
The money in the fund and from the fundraisers will go to those who, like Walters, lived above the businesses, the businesspeople and their employees who lost their livelihoods and the owners of the buildings that lay smoldering Thursday afternoon.
“You can’t believe it’s happened,” Cobb said, “and then you look down the street ...”
Cobb, among those at the prayer breakfast, said she found solace when Fuener talked about the people of the town helping their fellow residents to heal.
“We will show who we are by the way we respond,” he said.
Rebuilding what was lost in Georgetown will not be hard with the help of God, he said.
“If you can raise the dead to life, then rebuilding this is child’s play,” he said to those who had come to pray.
Fuener said it was perhaps ironic, perhaps prophetic, that the lesson he planned to preach this Sunday was how people need to use the abundance they have to help those in need.
Cobb said her emotions are like those she experienced after Hurricane Hugo, when she lived on Pawleys Island and walked among the ruins after it. It’ll take time, she said.
“It’s always going to hurt to see the scar,” she said.